WASHINGTON (AP) — A judge has temporarily halted the first federal executions in 16 years, saying death row inmates scheduled to be executed are likely to win their legal challenge.
U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan said in a Wednesday evening ruling that the public is not served by “short-circuiting” legitimate judicial process.
From 2004: Convicted Iowa drug kingpin may get death
SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) - A drug kingpin was convicted Thursday of murdering five people in a scheme to silence two former dealers turned informants, a verdict that could make him the first person sentenced to death in Iowa in more than 40 years.
The 15-member federal jury deliberated for 15 hours before convicting Dustin Honken, who already is serving a 27-year prison term on a federal drug conviction. The penalty phase of the trial was set to begin Monday.
Honken’s attorneys argued that the government’s case lacked critical physical evidence tying Honken to the 1993 murders, such as blood samples or the murder weapon.
But federal prosecutors pointed to testimony from former friends, associates and prison inmates, including one of Honken’s childhood friends who said he helped melt down a handgun of the type used in the slayings.
Honken, 35, was convicted of 17 counts, including murder while engaged in drug trafficking, witness tampering and soliciting the murder of a witness.
“It is greatly served by attempting to ensure that the most serious punishment is imposed lawfully,” she wrote.
The halt includes the execution of Dustin Honken, a Britt drug dealer and mass murderer who shot and killed five people in 1993, including two children. He was scheduled to be executed in January.
Honken was involved in one of North Iowa’s most well-publicized murder cases and was found guilty of five counts of murder in 2004.
The bodies were found buried in a wooded area in 2003 near where the current Cerro Gordo Co. Law Enforcement Center sits.
Honken killed Lori Ann Duncan, her daughters Kandace and Amber Duncan, Gregory Nicholson and Terry DeGeus during a federal meth investigation. The two children were kidnapped from Mason City.
DeGeus and Nicholson were two of Honken’s former methamphetamine dealers who agreed to cooperate with agents investigating Honken’s multistate operation.
Attorney General William Barr unexpectedly announced in July that the government would resume executions on Dec. 9, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain.
The Justice Department didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on Thursday on whether it would appeal, and the attorney general was traveling.
Some of the chosen convicts challenged the new procedures in court, arguing that the government was circumventing proper methods to wrongly execute inmates quickly.
“This decision prevents the government from evading accountability and making an end-run around the courts by attempting to execute prisoners under a protocol that has never been authorized by Congress,” said the convicts’ attorney, Shawn Nolan. “The court has made clear that no execution should go forward while there are still so many unanswered questions about the government’s newly announced execution method.”
The judge’s ruling temporarily postpones four of the five scheduled executions beginning next month; the fifth had already been halted. It’s possible the government could appeal and win in time to begin executions Dec. 9, but that would be an unusually fast turnaround.
Most Democrats oppose the death penalty. By contrast, President Donald Trump has spoken often about capital punishment and his belief that executions serve as an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for some crimes, including mass shootings and the killings of police officers.
Still, executions on the federal level have been rare. The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988, most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.
In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.
Barr said in July that the Obama-era review had been completed, clearing the way for executions to resume.
He approved a new procedure for lethal injections that replaces the three-drug combination previously used in federal executions with one drug, pentobarbital. This is similar to the procedure used in several states, including Georgia, Missouri and Texas, but not all.
Chutkan said in her opinion that the inmates’ legal challenge to the procedure was likely to succeed because the Federal Death Penalty Act requires that federal executions employ procedures used by the states in which they are carried out.
Danny Lee, of Yukon, Oklahoma, was the first person scheduled to be executed. Lee was convicted in the 1996 deaths of an Arkansas family as part of a plot to set up a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest.
The death penalty remains legal in 30 states, but only a handful regularly conduct executions. Texas has executed 108 prisoners since 2010, far more than any other state.
Though there hasn't been a federal execution since 2003, the Justice Department has continued to approve death penalty prosecutions, and federal courts have sentenced defendants to death.